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Rhode Island To Change State's Controversial Full Name

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One outcome we know from this Election Day - a name change for Rhode Island. It will no longer be known as, quote, "the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." A ballot measure removes Providence Plantations.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That's right. A longtime proponent of the change, state Senator Harold Metts, says 10 years ago Rhode Islanders voted to keep the phrase because...

HAROLD METTS: People didn't understand at the time how hurtful the word plantation are to people of African American descent.

KELLY: Professor Linford Fisher of Brown University says the phrase goes back to the state's earliest days.

LINFORD FISHER: The first time we see the use of Providence Plantations is in the 1643 charter.

KELLY: Fisher says even if state founder Roger Williams did not use the word plantations to describe a large farm worked by enslaved people, it was the word already loaded with meaning.

FISHER: So even if we want to say, well, it wasn't with regard to slavery, it has a strong settler colonial context of expanding and settling upon Native lands.

CHANG: But the link between plantation and slavery was a familiar one.

FISHER: By that time, the Spanish had been spreading around different parts of Central and South America for 100, 125, 130 years. They are building their empire on the back of, first, Indigenous, then African slaves. And this is no secret.

CHANG: And the authors of the 1643 charter would soon demand their own enslaved people.

FISHER: Within two or three years of coming to Rhode Island, Roger Williams himself requests a Pequot captive for his own servant or slave.

KELLY: Rhode Island ended up being key in the transatlantic slave trade.

FISHER: That means that we actually, as a state, participated directly in the very thing that this word has come to mean through the 18th and 19th century.

LOREN SPEARS: You know, it's only recently that people even understand the major role that Rhode Island had in slavery.

KELLY: That is Loren Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, R.I. She says even the name given to these plantation owners was stolen from the area's Indigenous community.

SPEARS: Mind you, they appropriated our name to be the Narragansett planters.

KELLY: She says this was an act of erasure. And this week's ballot measure, she says, plays some small part in helping understand the bigger story.

SPEARS: The point is, you don't keep something that is oppressive to many, many people and that is not fully telling the truth of the history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.